Updated: Detroit's garbage incinerator is about to belch its final cloud of toxic gas

(Editor's note: The incinerator is ceasing operations this week, but will take between 60 to 90 days to fully close.)

In Midtown and other neighborhoods near downtown's east side, the rancid stink of Detroit's garbage-burning incinerator is as much a part of life as coney dogs and Tiger games.

The source is the Detroit Renewable Power waste-to-energy facility near Interstates 94 and 75, but it's about to belch its final clouds of poison gas into the sky over Detroit. At the end of the day, the incinerator is shutting down permanently, the Detroit News reports. However it will take between 60 and 90 days to fully shut down the operation.

The cost of eliminating its odor issues was too high, and Detroit Renewable Power faced a growing number of lawsuits alleging that it violated local, state, and federal clean air laws.
The incinerator officially exceeded pollution emissions standards more than 750 times over the last five years. The violations involved sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and particulate matter, but critics argued it exceeded standards more frequently. However, state regulatory agencies like the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality failed to protect residents. As we reported last year:

"As a regulatory body, MDEQ often resorts to discretion when dealing with those who break the rules again and again. When those negotiations are complete, sometimes several violations are bundled into one, sometimes an isolated exceedance will not be alleged, and sometimes even when it is there may be no penalty attached to it.

Ultimately, the facility paid fines of $149,000 for a half-dozen violations.  Nine continuous weeks of excess particulate emissions were counted as one single violation. More than 300 violations of carbon monoxide releases were excused because they occurred during startup, shut-down, or due to a malfunction. Many others, however, were not alleged as violations solely at the discretion of MDEQ."

That's despite complaints over the stench rolling in for years.

"Not only did people complain, but state staff arrived on-scene and substantiated the calls with their verdicts on the “alleged” smells. Assistant AG Leone writes that the department’s Air Quality Division fielded 200 odor complaints between June 5 and Dec. 31, 2015; 88 percent were confirmed by on-site observers and attributed to the facility. The division fielded another 200 odor complaints for 2017; field investigators attributed 90 percent of the complaints to the facility. The division received another 75 odor complaints from Jan. 1 to June 15, 2018, and field observers verified about 86 percent as coming from the facility."

One study found that asthma rates in the area around the incinerator were 2.5 times higher than the average around the rest of the state. During test burns of Detroit's incinerator in 1988, workers grew ill, suffering blisters and rashes, nosebleeds, and swollen throats. At one point, employees were warned not to wear their work clothes home to protect their families.

Aside from burning trash, the incinerator burned taxpayer money. The city spent $1.2 billion to build the plant, and state repeatedly gave private operators subsidies to continue operating. In short, Detroit residents were paying the company to poison them. As we reported in 2018:

"Even as the economy turned south and Detroit faced bankruptcy, the giveaways kept coming. In 2008, the state had redefined waste-to-energy power as "renewable," making the facility eligible for valuable green energy credits. In 2011, the facility's new owners came to Detroit City Council seeking $4.1 million in brownfield credits. The request was granted. In 2013, the owners completed a deal with the Michigan Strategic Fund for $55 million in tax-exempt bonds."

The subject of problems with the incinerator has long been covered by Metro Times, including in-depth cover stories in 2002, 2008, 2014, and 2018.

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